By Lawrence Budmen

For seventeen years the New World Symphony has been a mecca for gifted young conservatory graduates. The training orchestra (based in Miami Beach, Florida, USA) has had 600 alumni assume positions in orchestral and chamber music groups (as well as teaching positions in major music education institutions) – a placement rate of ninety-five percent. On April 28, 2005 the orchestra celebrated A Musical Homecoming at the Lincoln Theater. Twenty-one alumni joined the current ensemble in a joyous celebration of conductor Michael Tilson Thomas’s 60th birthday. 

The players brought tremendous enthusiasm to this musical reunion. Cellist David Low is now a studio musician and orchestral contractor in Hollywood. A charter member of the New World Symphony in 1988, Low has played on the soundtracks of 600 films. “This is a rare opportunity to go back in time, to take off some of the layers of what you do everyday, and to see old friends,” Low said. Recalling his time in the orchestra Low added “Tilson Thomas always emphasized the beauty of sound. ‘Never make an ugly sound’ he would reiterate. Today the orchestra has the same enthusiasm and focus but they are even better and more competitive.” Low added that California’s Pacific Symphony has many former New World players in its ranks. As a contractor for the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra he often hires these musicians. On a personal note Low found the concert to be “a wonderful way to reconnect with old friends from 1988. This reunion has been unbelievable.” 

For flutist Catherine Ransom Karoly (now a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic) three years with the NWS (1993-96) were “a special time. There was willingness and freedom to take risks that strongly impacted the character of my playing. Michael Tilson Thomas was an inspiration. Today he is even more articulate.” She has seen NWS alumni gain greater respect in the orchestral world over the past decade. As a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic auditions panel, Ransom Karoly finds New World players have an edge in the competitive process. 

Violinist Daniel Jordan is presently concertmaster of the Florida West Coast Symphony in Sarasota – an orchestra that counts fourteen former New World players in its ranks. (The orchestra’s music director Leif Bjaland was New World’s former Resident Conductor.) Jordan saw the performance as “a great opportunity to reinvent your enthusiasm and passion. The spirit of Tilson Thomas and the players was infectious. It reinvigorated everyone. This orchestra now has a world vibe. It allows you to grow so much.” (The New World’s global reach is exemplified by Brazil’s Sao Paulo State Symphony – an ensemble that includes ten NWS alumni, three in first chair positions.) 

Electricity was in the air as clarinetist Todd Levy (principal clarinet of the Milwaukee Symphony) and his colleagues took the stage to open the concert with some of Mozart’s most autumnal music – the opening Allegro of the Quartet in A Major for Clarinet and Strings, K.581. Levy’s glistening cascades of tonal warmth were pure instrumental bel canto. The string players (Leonid Sigal, concertmaster of the Hartford Symphony; Chen Zhao, violinist in Tilson Thomas’s San Francisco Symphony; Mark Butin, principal viola of the Honolulu Symphony; and Peter Steffens, cellist in the Dallas Symphony) offered warmly aristocratic shaping of Mozart’s gleaming instrumental lines. 

Pianist Michael Linville, now the New World Symphony’s Director of Admissions, played with stylish musicality in the Allegro, ma non tanto from Dvorak’s Quartet in A Major for Piano and Strings, Opus 81. The richly burnished string sound of violinists Jordan, and Naomi Kazama (San Francisco Symphony), violist Rita Porfiris-Pizzitola (Houston Symphony), and the commanding Mark Votapek (principal cello, Honolulu Symphony) was a joy to hear in the rhapsodic stanzas of Dvorak’s Bohemian melodies.

The piece de resistance was the enlarged orchestra’s traversal of Mahler’s Symphony No.1 in D Major (“Titan”). Like his mentor Leonard Bernstein Tilson Thomas has emerged as one of the great Mahler conductors of our time. He magically evoked the Alpine mystery of the score’s opening bars. The rich, transparent strings (with Jordan as concertmaster and Votapek as principal cello) produced monumental vistas of sonority. The landler of the second movement was truly rollicking in Tilson Thomas’s hands. Michael Valerio (currently a Hollywood studio musician much favored by composer-conductor John Williams) played a stunning double bass solo in the eerie funeral march on Frere Jacques. The concluding movement was magnificent as Tilson Thomas eloquently traced Mahler’s journey from darkness to light. At the conclusion eight horns (led by Michelle Perry of the Empire Brass) rang out triumphantly. An unforgettable, superbly articulated performance.

In response to a prolonged standing, cheering ovation Tilson Thomas offered an Americana encore - Aaron Copland’s Hoedown from Rodeo in a performance that combined classical precision with country western swagger. 

On April 1, 2005 Tilson Thomas led the ensemble in an illuminating Tchaikovsky program. Violinist Leila Josefowicz played the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in a manner that dusted off the cobwebs of repeated hearings and made the music emerge freshly minted. She thinned her tone down to the most slender of threads, lingered over lush romantic pages, and played with wild Magyar abandon – all within a single movement. Her poetic reading of the Canzonetta was followed by a gutsy, daredevil version of the finale – played at lightning speed.

Tchaikovsky’s rarely played Symphony No.1 (“Winter Dreams”) has long been a Tilson Thomas specialty. (The conductor made a classic1968 recording of the score with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.) He brought balletic fluidity and excitement to the opening Allegro tranquillo. His spacious tempo and the rich, focused tone of the violins found the deep Russian melancholy that permeates the Adagio cantabile. The bright sound of Dwight Perry’s oboe and Alice Dade’s flute underscored the music’s aristocratic nobility. Tilson Thomas’s exhilarating reading of the finale highlighted the orchestra’s dynamic brass and incandescent strings. With the coda taken at a fierce clip, the brilliant concluding string flourishes were like musical sunshine greeting the joy of spring.

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